Marisa Morby logo

How to Make Your Freelance Business Paper-Free

So, I recently got a question from a friend/client/fellow business owner about how I run my business completely paper-free. Since I’ve been traveling for over a year now, and started my business completely from the road, having actual paper documents is really not an option. Plus, everything is simplified because I just open up my laptop and all my files are ready to go.

Since she found it useful, I thought it would be helpful to put it up here for everyone to take a look at. This is every single piece of software I use to help me with clients, manage my documents, and take care of my finances.

I’m curious, what software systems do you use to keep you from going crazy?

Client Documentation

Qwilr: I use this for proposals. The free version originally gave you 15 projects, but there’s a new update in April that’s going to give you 3. I just keep one template open that I update for each client. Once the proposal is accepted/finalized, I download it as a PDF and save it in my client file. Then I delete that project in Qwilr.

You also get to see when someone has viewed your proposal, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking. Usually when you send something over to a potential client, you sit in stunned anticipation for a couple of days, like a teenage girl in the ’50s waiting by the phone for her beau to call — will he, won’t he, where is he for Christ’s sake? — but with Qwilr you know they’ve seen it and know they’re avoiding you or are too busy to write you back. So there’s that. But it does let you time your follow-up a little better, which I like.

Anyway, I’ve used this for a few clients, and really like it, so will probably upgrade to the paid option soon, which lets you enable “Auto Accept”. That way, if a client’s like, “Hells yeah I want to work on this shit with you!” they can just click a button and confirm.

Docracy: I use this for all my contracts, and it is legit. I keep a Pages doc with my general contract template and upload a new contract on Docracy whenever I have a new client. Then, I can just email the client the contract and we’re good to go. Docracy is also uses ESIGN Act compliant, so everyone can use an e-signature and it’s still binding, which is great.

Downside is that your client will need to put their email in with Docracy in order to sign, which I really didn’t like, but is necessary to use for verification. Your client won’t get signed up for newsletter or anything, and I set my client’s expectations in an email prior to sending the contract so they know that it’ll ask them to do that. So far, I haven’t had any complaints about it. Docracy has really saved my ass, and if there’s only one piece of software here I think you should try, it’s this one. Everybody should use contracts when working with clients, and this is just so simple!

Payment and Accounting

Harvest: I use Harvest for invoicing, reporting, and task management. I pay $100 a year for the service, and it’s the only accounting software I use or need right now, since the only person working on stuff is me.

It does give you options to add other project managers and people onto your account, so it would probably even work for a small team.

I could see myself outgrowing it in the next year or so though, but I do like it, for the most part. Setting up tasks can be a little confusing, and I needed to go to the Help Center to get it to actually count a couple of my tasks as billable hours, but other than that I haven’t had any trouble.

More importantly, it integrates with Stripe and Paypal for online payment as well, so requires zero coding knowledge. Plus, I love the invoice features and it always processes payment in a timely manner.

Stripe: I like Stripe better than PayPal because it’s easy to set up, and lets you easily integrate with other software. It works well for anyone in the US, and I don’t have much to say about it because I’ve actually never had a problem with it. It took me about ten minutes to set up and add to Harvest, and I’ve never had to touch it since. Fantastic fucking service.

PayPal: Oh PayPal… if only you could eat shit and die. Seriously. I have a personal vendetta against PayPal because they were convinced I wasn’t who I said I was and froze my funds for a while last year. I know I should be happy that they care about fraud, but I didn’t like the way they handled the issue. Ultimately, a nice Customer Service guy named Chris pressed a magic button and cleared the whole issue up, but only after they sent me multiple emails telling me that they didn’t believe I was a real person, and three other Customer Service reps failed to solve the issue.

Anyway… I still use this because when I work with clients that aren’t in the US, this is the only thing that usually works for them.

To their credit, I haven’t had any issues after the initial setup fiasco, so I guess I should let that go, but I hate being forced to call customer service for online services.

File Management

Dropbox: I use dropbox as my backup to house all my files so I don’t lose them. It’s something like $100 a year, too and I get a terabyte of data. Just an insane amount of data and I love it, probably because I’m American and every once in a while I fall into the trap of “more is better”. Anyway, I use it to back up all my pictures, files, videos… everything. I’ve never had a problem with it, and can easily share files with anybody, which means that sending pictures of my curly face to my mom isn’t an issue.

Google Docs: Most people use this already to some extent, but I use these on documents that need collaboration. Be careful with it though, because your edits can be overwritten if you’ve got the wrong permissions up. I learned this the hard way during an edit for a client last year. Blah. Overall though, spot on document management system, and you don’t have to worry about losing all of your edits if you accidentally pour tea on your keyboard and kill your laptop or something. I haven’t done this, I’m just saying that since I spend like 80% of my time on the computer and a good chunk of the remaining 20% drinking tea, at some point two might have a fateful meeting. Preparation is key.

Draftin: I used to use Draftin for all of my writing drafts. I spend more time writing than I’d care to admit, so a good system for this is key. Draftin allows me to write in markdown, share drafts of my work, upload it directly into MailChimp, accept edits, and export my documents. It even lets me export to html so that I can put it on my site with out having to deal directly with the formatting beast that is Wordpress.

So why am I looking to use something else? Because I’m lazy, that’s why. When I export my documents, it doesn’t automatically include the meta character set, so each document I export I’ve got to go into Sublime and add it, or else my em dashes turn out all stupid. And I use a lot of em dashes. I still haven’t found the perfect solution, but Draftin is pretty damn close.

Trello: Trello has helped me stay focused and get so much shit done, so this has become my online to-do list. Nothing will ever replace a good moleskin, but Trello lets me create different boards and lists so that I can keep track of everything. You can also use it with your team and create due dates, list collaborators, and sync it with your calendar. I keep my content calendar and to-do list in Trello and the due dates come up in my calendar which is sweet!

Evernote: I use Evernote for my swipe files, travel info, basically everything that involves housing websites. I like Evernote to a degree but still think it’s kind of hard to use. Buuuut… it’s better than just having 8 million bookmarks, so there’s that.

There’s a complete guide to Evernote, which would be worth checking out if you plan on really going in balls deep on the platform. I tend to just click buttons until I find what I want.

Scheduling and Time Management

Sunrise: This calendar is pretty fantastic and is free! It integrates with TONS of different apps (Evernote, Trello, and TripIt are the three I use). You can set up meetings in different time zones, and it has a “Meet” function that lets you send a link with available times that you can just include in an email.

It’s also got fantastic UX, and I will admit I’m a sucker for its design. If you want another option for scheduling, Calendly is also great, and also has a free version. Some of my clients and friends have used Calendly and really like it for scheduling as well. There are free and paid options to choose from.

Buffer: I use buffer to auto-schedule all my social media posts so I don’t have to get up at 2 am and be on the US time zone, haha. You can do 10 posts for 3 accounts for free, so it’s okay as long as you aren’t doing hardcore social media.

RescueTime: I’ve mentioned how much RescueTime helps me focus, so figured I should include it in this comprehensive list as well. It’s a great app that lets you track your time, so you can see where it’s really going. Accountability to the max. Also, it helps keep you away from getting your daily EllenTube fix until your actually done with work by selecting “Get Focused”. Which is just what I need, really.

Email Management System

MailChimp: I use this for my email list, but later on I’ll probably switch to ConvertKit, once I’m a hot shot. MailChimp’s UX has really improves just from last year, so if you’re new to using it, you’ll have an easier time than when I started.

My understanding of ConvertKit is that it’s kind of like a mashup of LeadPages and MailChimp, so worth looking into if you need to churn out quick and easy templates, and have the budget to swallow the cost.

Join the Design & Nature Reimagined Newsletter